By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.
An employee who lost at trial on her ADA claims failed to convince the Fifth Circuit that she was entitled to a new trial and/or that her attorney should have been allowed to interview jurors post-trial in order to learn the basis for the verdict and improve trial advocacy. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying her motion for a new trial since there was ample evidence supporting the jury’s finding that she was not disabled, including a doctor’s testimony that her foot injury had healed and her own acknowledgment that she had fictionalized details in the initial account of her injury. Moreover, the panel majority found that Fifth Circuit precedent supported the denial of the request to interview the jurors, though a concurring judge reached the same result but based on different reasoning (Benson v. Tyson Foods, Inc., May 1, 2018, per curiam).
The employee appealed from a jury verdict in favor of Tyson Foods on her ADA claims. After the jury returned its verdict, her attorney did not move for judgment as a matter of law. Instead, almost three months later, he filed a motion for leave to interview jurors post-trial. The next day, she moved for a new trial, arguing that the jury ignored the evidence when it concluded that she was not disabled. The district court denied both requests, and this appeal followed.
Evidence supported finding of no disability. The Fifth Circuit squarely rejected her assertion that she should have been granted a new trial since the record didn’t support the jury’s finding that she was not disabled. Finding ample evidence supporting the jury verdict, the appeals court noted that a doctor had testified about the extent of her injury, including that her foot had healed correctly and that she required no further treatment. Moreover, she had acknowledged that she was able to play basketball and work two jobs that required her to stand on her feet. She also admitted to fictionalizing details in the initial account of her foot injury, thus undermining the credibility of her testimony. Accordingly, since the jury could reasonably conclude that she was not disabled, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for a new trial.
Not entitled to speak to jurors. The district court also properly denied her counsel’s request to speak to jurors in order to learn the basis of the verdict and improve his trial advocacy. In Haeberle v. Texas International Airlines, the Fifth Circuit held that the First Amendment interests of both the disgruntled litigant and the litigant’s counsel in interviewing jurors in order to satisfy their curiosity and improve counsel’s advocacy are limited and that “those interests are not merely balanced but plainly outweighed by the jurors’ interest in privacy and the public’s interest in well-administered justice.” Thus, in this case, the district court committed no error in denying her attorney’s request.
The Fifth Circuit went on to note that the Haeberle opinion was “not without its flaws” since it suggested a distinction between the First Amendment rights of the press and those of the public at large, even though such a division found no support in either constitutional text or precedent. Moreover, the court was mindful that the government may have an interest in regulating the speech of attorneys, given their unique role as officers of the court. However, in this case—as in Haeberle—the district court articulated no such interest. Thus, it did not err in denying the employee’s counsel’s request to interview the jurors.
Concurrence. Concurring in part, Circuit Judge James E. Graves, Jr., agreed with the conclusion that the employee should not prevail on the motion seeking access to the jurors, but did not reach that conclusion through adherence to Haeberle. Rather, he found this case distinguishable on two grounds. First, the attorney’s petition, though framed in terms of “improving advocacy,” actually sought to determine on what basis the verdict was reached—the very subject the local rule at issue sought to guard against.
More importantly, the local rule followed by the district court here was not as narrowly tailored as the rule at issue in Haeberle since, on its face, it barred all speech on any subject in perpetuity between an attorney and any juror on a case previously tried by that attorney without first seeking leave of court. It also gave a district judge unfettered discretion to deny that leave for any reason or no reason at all, which raised deep First Amendment concerns. Thus, district courts “should take a hard look at these juror communication rules to avoid potentially running afoul of the First Amendment.”
Denial of interviews didn’t affect employee’s rights. However, though Judge Graves would have found that the district court abused its discretion by summarily denying counsel’s motion for leave under the local rule to interview the jurors, reversal was still not warranted since that abuse of discretion did not affect the plaintiff’s “substantial rights.” Though she may have had a “theoretical stake” in her attorneys being afforded an opportunity to interview jurors to improve their trial advocacy skills in the event they represented her in a new trial, the Fifth Circuit had affirmed the denial of her motion for a new trial. Thus, she certainly had no stake now. Accordingly, on this alternate ground, Judge Graves concurred in the decision to affirm the district court’s denial of the motion for leave to communicate with the jurors.
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